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Where were you on…

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I don’t know if you felt it or not – you were probably busy – but at just after 7pm last Thursday night the world changed. Just a little; not enough to make people stop in the street, blink and carry on on their way slightly dizzy… not enough to make the Sun dim, or the trees shake, or dogs bark or birds sing… but it definitely changed.

What happened? Well, on that night, at just after 7pm our time, NASA announced in a press conference broadcast on NASA TV that they had proof – not ‘evidence’, not ‘hints’ or ‘suggestions’ or ‘theories’, but proof – that Mars is an active planet. After decades of believing that Mars was essentially dead, with nothing of any note puffing or hissing or leaking out of its parched, cobble-strewn crust, studies have found that plumes of the gas methane have been shooting up into the martian atmosphere from several locations…

Of course, if you lived in the UK then the press announcement wasn’t a huge surprise, as that morning’s edition of The Sun newspaper carried this very subtle front page…

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Seems like The Sun broke a press embargo and ran the story early, but that didn’t really matter. Most space enthusiasts and journalists had already guessed the nature of the announcement just by researching the members of the NASA panel who were going to be broadcasting the news on NASA TV – “methane” and “life” were the common links between them all, so it wasn’t too hard to put the puzzle pieces together.  But I guess the Sun did, technically, “break the story”, so let them enjoy their brief bask in the sunshine. It was certainly a more creditable front page “scoop” than their recent “Exclusive” describing how a low-flying UFO broke a blade off a wind turbine… 😉

In the end the media conference was, I thought, slightly anticlimatic, with a couple of the panel looking quite uncomfortable. To be honest tho, I can;t say I really followed the briefing all that well; my broadband connection was godawful that night, so NASA TV kept re-buffering every thirty seconds or so ( absolute nightmare, like being back on ******* dial-up watching the MER landings!! ) so I was really struggling to follow the explanations and questions which followed, but I managed to get the gist of it, and have read up on it since.

Why is this so important – and potentially paradigm-shifting? Because methane can really only be produced on Mars in two ways, either geologically (i.e. volcanoes, vents etc) or… yep, you guessed it, biologically – i.e. by critters, living, breathing, farting, honest-to-god martian bugs.

Before I get all personal about this, and start my inevitable lyrical waxing, here’s the official NASA press release, in case you missed it. (It also explains the science a LOT better than I can!)

DISCOVERY OF METHANE REVEALS MARS IS NOT A DEAD PLANET

WASHINGTON — A team of NASA and university scientists has achieved
the first definitive detection* of methane in the atmosphere of Mars.
This discovery indicates the planet is either biologically or
geologically active.

The team found methane in the Martian atmosphere by carefully
observing the planet throughout several Mars years with NASA’s
Infrared Telescope Facility and the W.M. Keck telescope, both at
Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The team used spectrometers on the telescopes to
spread the light into its component colors, as a prism separates
white light into a rainbow. The team detected three spectral features
called absorption lines that together are a definitive signature of
methane.

“Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety
of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the
northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is
releasing the gas,” said Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight
Center in Greenbelt, Md. “At northern mid-summer, methane is released
at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal
Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif.” Mumma is lead author of a paper
describing this research that will appear in Science Express on
Thursday.

Methane, four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom, is the main
component of natural gas on Earth. Astrobiologists are interested in
these data because organisms release much of Earth’s methane as they
digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like
oxidation of iron, also release methane.

“Right now, we do not have enough information to tell whether biology
or geology — or both — is producing the methane on Mars,” Mumma
said. “But it does tell us the planet is still alive, at least in a
geologic sense. It is as if Mars is challenging us, saying, ‘hey,
find out what this means.’ “

If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely
resides far below the surface where it is warm enough for liquid
water to exist. Liquid water is necessary for all known forms of
life, as are energy sources and a supply of carbon.

“On Earth, microorganisms thrive about 1.2 to 1.9 miles beneath the
Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity
splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen and oxygen,” Mumma
said. “The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be
possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below
the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation
supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon. Gases, like
methane, accumulated in such underground zones might be released into
the atmosphere if pores or fissures open during the warm seasons,
connecting the deep zones to the atmosphere at crater walls or
canyons.”

It is possible a geologic process produced the Martian methane, either
now or eons ago. On Earth, the conversion of iron oxide into the
serpentine group of minerals creates methane, and on Mars this
process could proceed using water, carbon dioxide and the planet’s
internal heat. Although there is no evidence of active volcanism on
Mars today, ancient methane trapped in ice cages called clathrates
might be released now.

“We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of
which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane,” said co-author
Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America in
Washington. “The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons,
spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures
vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the Martian air.”

According to the team, the plumes were seen over areas that show
evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. Plumes appeared over
the Martian northern hemisphere regions such as east of Arabia Terra,
the Nili Fossae region, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major,
an ancient volcano about 745 miles across.

One method to test whether life produced this methane is by measuring
isotope ratios. Isotopes of an element have slightly different
chemical properties, and life prefers to use the lighter isotopes. A
chemical called deuterium is a heavier version of hydrogen. Methane
and water released on Mars should show distinctive ratios for
isotopes of hydrogen and carbon if life was responsible for methane
production. It will take future missions, like NASA’s Mars Science
Laboratory, to discover the origin of the Martian methane.

The research was funded by the Planetary Astronomy Program at NASA
Headquarters in Washington and the Astrobiology Institute at NASA’s
Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The University of
Hawaii manages NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility.

* Really? Um, I thought ESA’s Mars Express detected methane a few years ago? Must have slipped their minds…

So, that’s the story – methane has been found in the atmosphere of Mars.

And my take on it, after a few days of quiet contemplation in my sick bed, and slogging to and from work in the rain? I think it’s a win-win situation for people like myself who believe in – I suppose I should more accurately say ‘have faith in’, because there’s still no proof yet – the existence of life on Mars. I think it’s absolutely fantastic news, news I’ve been waiting to hear for many, many years. Not as good as Spirit or Oppy finding a fossil embedded in a rocky layer, or disturbing a colony of martian wriggly worms by driving over their nest with their big spiky wheels, but it’ll do for now. The martian life cat is now well and truly out of the bag, and running down the street, ignoring all calls to come back…

And although many people are, naturally and rightly, urging caution in the aftermath of the announcement – after all, it’s very feasible that a perfectly natural and non-biological process is producing the methane – the very bottom line here is that it is proof that Mars is not “dead” after all, that things… chemical things, bubbly, moving things.. are going on in at least a few places on or beneath the surface. That means Mars is an Active Planet, and on an active planet life would find it a LOT easier to exist than on a dead, inactive one, because there’s at least the potential for energy and food. 

Absolute bottom line? This announcement really does tear out every page of each pre Jan 2009 astronomy book that declares “Mars is a dead world” and tapes in that pages’s place a new one with the words “Mars is an active world, with plumes of methane coming out of its surface.”

And at its most stretched, this announcement could be the first real sign of life on Mars, even if that life is just a thin film of micro-organisms metres deep underground.

( And as I understand it, one great thing about methane is that it’s actually easier for microbes to use it as a fuel, as a food, than it is for them to fart it out, so even if the methane detected wasn’t breathed or burped out by martian bugs, and was created perfectly naturally, then maybe there are martian bugs feasting on the methane anyway! )

It’s an announcement that changes things, believe me. There’s not, as I understand it, a lot more that can be done with this methane from orbit or from here on Earth, the levels are so small. What we need to do is get something down on the surface that will be able to toddle or trundle over to one of these plume sources and have a bloody good sniff with a sophisticated electronic nose that can tell us EXACTLY what kind of methane it is – not to be too scientific about it, tell us if the methane is coming out of some rocks, or the tiny mouths and tiny bums of tiny martian bugs.

So, how do we do that? Well, sadly, neither of the Mars rovers is anywhere near the source of one of these vents, so they can’t scoot over and take a look for us, and even if they were within driving range they don’t have the right sort of “nose” for sniffing out “Yep, this is from life!” isotopes in the methane plumes. But the next rover to land on Mars, the recently-delayed Mars Science Laboratory, WILL be carrying a good nose for this kind of work… and one of its shortlisted landing sites was Nili Fossae, one of the places a methane plume has been detected coming from. Unfortunately, Nili was seen as “too risky” for various reasons, so it was taken off the list, but this announcement has to change that, surely? I bet Nili is back on the list now… 🙂

You know what I think? I think we’ve got to stop (and no offence intended to any of my geology or science friends here) messing about and just drop something on Mars that can actually look for life – not “look for proof of past habitability” or “look for evidence of a more hospitable environment”, (which are noble goals in themselves, and were the best we could hope for until this news) but LOOK FOR LIFE ITSELF. Until now – until yesterday – the argument against that direct assault approach had always been “Well, we don’t know where to look… you know, needle… haystack…” but now we have several sites where we know, we actually KNOW something interesting and exotic is going on. We know which part of the haystack the needle is hidden in! So even if MSL can’t land at one of these sites, it really is time to consider sending a number of smaller probes – probes like the British Beagle 2 – to Mars, just to look for signs of life, and answer this fascinating, frustrating, infuriating question once and for all. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could somehow start a crash program to design and build two or three identica landers, small enough to be sent to Mars on one rocket, that would land on Mars at the soirces of these methane plumes and just get their heads down and figure out exactly what’s going on, sniffing the air like bloodhounds, analysing the chemistry of the atmosphere there until it was known in such great detail that we would know, once and for all, if the methane was geological or biological in origin..?

After all, that’s what we all really want to know, isn’t it? Is there life on Mars? As fascinating as the chemistry and geology of the Red Planet are, the one burning question is IS THERE LIFE THERE? And until we bite the bullet and start designing missions and spacecraft that have answering that question as their single, unashamed goal, we’re really just marking time until the first people land on Mars.

Although some people have claimed that the timing of this announcement had a lot more to do with Tuesday’s inauguration of Barrack Obama as the new US President than it does with science (and only an idiot would suggest there was no link at all, come on! 😉 ) this is a great opportunity for NASA to refocus itself and find a new goal, a new reason for being, a whole new mission – something that will grasp the public’s attention, increase the public’s support, and give it something truly epic and historic and meaningful to aim for again.

I mean, let’s face it, the prospect of sending people back to the Moon in the year 20Whenever isn’t exactly setting the world – public or media – alight with passion and interest, is it? And the first crewed mission to Mars doesn’t look likely until 2035 at the earliest, and the been-on-about-it-for-decades-and-it’s-still-no-nearer-happening Sample Return Mission is more of a technical challenge than an inspirational mission (we have meteorites from Mars anyway…!).

No, I really think that it’s time to start treating the subject of martian life a lot more urgently, and with a lot more respect, too. This methane is being produced somehow – let’s stop messing about and go and find out WHAT!!!!

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